Clock ends on climate change. California says it’s time for giant carbon vacuums

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Solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars will go a long way in helping California and Biden’s administration meet its aggressive climate goals – but not far enough. While time is running out, scientists and government officials say the time has come to blow up the giant vacuums.

The art of industrial-scale carbon sequestration – sucking out emissions from the atmosphere and storing them underground – has long been an afterthought in climate action circles: too expensive, too controversial, too unproven.

But as the deadline to avoid climate disaster barrels comes closer, Biden’s management is making the te technologies prominent in its plans, and California is trying to figure out how to use them.

It is not a small business. Installing science fiction machines to pull carbon out of the air – or divert it from refineries, power plants and industrial operations – and bottling it deep underground is a monumentally expensive and logistically daunting challenge. It’s one climate leaders now have no choice but to try to meet as they race to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the central duty of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which aims to avoid cataclysmic effects.

“To have any chance of keeping warming below that level, you can’t do it simply by limiting emissions,” said Ken Alex, senior adviser on former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who now directs Project Climate at the University of California, Law School. Berkeley. “You have to seize significant amounts of carbon.”

The recognition pushed state regulators to begin drafting projects for what could be one of the largest infrastructure companies in California history. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide would need to be captured and compressed into liquid form, then it would be buried all over the state or transformed into materials for industrial uses such as the manufacture of plastic and cement.

The state basically starts from scratch. There are no large-scale coal removal projects in California.

Pipelines need to be built, vast geological water reservoirs deep underground have to be formed into carbon dioxide storage facilities, expensive new technologies to dust carbon off the air and factories need to be scaled.

“We need to see some pilot projects and test them as soon as possible,” said Rajinder Sahota, deputy administrator for Climate Change and Research at the California Air Resources Board. “All the models we have say that if we don’t start investing in a significant amount of this in this decade, we won’t be arranged to achieve California’s goal of carbon neutrality until the middle of the century.”

The recognition has aroused interest from investors and energy start-ups trying to expand ie technology techniques, which have only recently been considered a money launderer. Among the most ambitious are the proponents of a process known as direct air capture, by which giant fans suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

The technology has been used in modest demonstration projects – including one in Menlo Park – for years, but never broad enough to do significant damage to emissions. With the cost of operating the machines declining and the willingness to consider faster and faster solutions, as well as a new administration in Washington promising an infusion of federal subsidies, the vacuum approach is suddenly receiving a lot of attention.

“The question has always been, could we fund a multimillion-dollar factory, find a website and build it?” said Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering, a company with direct air capture based in British Columbia. “The answer now is, surprisingly, yes.”

California regulators are closely monitoring the progress of the extensive direct air capture facility the company is building with Occidental Petroleum in the Texas Perm Basin. The 100-acre operation aims to capture up to 1 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Even if the Texas plant meets its targets, the carbon dioxide removed from it would reflect less than 1% of the emissions California needs to pull from the atmosphere to hit its climate targets, according to estimates by National Laboratory Lawrence Livermore.

“The models tell us that these approaches are essential, but we still don’t know if they will succeed,” said Simon Nicholson, co-director of the Institute for Carbon Abolition Law and Policy at U.S. University in Washington. “There are a lot of promises, a lot of possibilities, but not a lot of evidence yet.”

There is also a lot of consternation. The Texas Carbon Engineering project is the subject of heated debate among climate activists. To create the project pencil financially, the carbon dioxide drawn from the air will be injected into the ground so as to help Western extract oil, which will then be sold on the market.

Critics have long warned that fossil energy firms are looking for the technologies to delay the transition to more sustainable fuels. The oil produced at the Texas facility is likely to qualify as an environmentally friendly fuel in California according to the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Carbon Engineering promises that oil extraction is not in its long-term future. The oil revenue, the company says, makes it possible to build early plants. The hope is that the costs of the plants will be much lower as the technology is widely used, which makes it economical to just bury the carbon dioxide in the soil.

The European company Climeworks has taken a different path, using modular units to build smaller operations across the continent. Its largest, in Iceland, will soon be online, collecting 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually. That would be hampered by what Carbon Engineering is projecting in Texas. But there is no fossil fuel in the Climeworks projects.

“This is scalable,” said Christoph Beuttler, Climeworks manager. “We can reduce costs. Imagine we talked about solar panels in the 1990s and how far prices have fallen. We think the same thing can be achieved here.”

California officials say developers for direct air capture are looking at where they can build in the state. Some are looking to remote areas in Northern California where they could exploit geothermal energy, as Climeworks will do to power its Icelandic plant. Others focus more on the deep underground basins of the Central Valley, suitable for storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Vacuums are just one of many technologies California and other states are exploring in their sprint to carbon sequestration. Back in Washington, there is a bipartisan push to allocate billions of dollars to the construction of pipelines and storage facilities for all carbon dioxide lawmakers planned to be diverted underground in the coming years.

One of the first projects ahead in California is targeting agriculture and lumber that would otherwise be burned, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. It aims to convert the waste into zero-emission power through an innovative gas process. The emissions created during production would be captured and buried underground.

Other efforts are focused on the possibility of capturing greenhouse gases in factories for things like cement and steel. Their production intensifies emissions due to the required high heat temperatures and related chemical chemical reactions, and the only option to cancel those emissions is to divert and bury the carbon dioxide.

“Some of these facilities cannot or will not be closed, replaced or changed to carbon-free fuels quickly enough … to contain climate change at manageable levels,” said a recent report from the National Laboratory Lawrence Livermore, which urged California to become a leader in disposal of carbon. .

The race to bring market carbon removal technologies is getting a boost from billionaire Elon Musk. On Thursday, Earth Day, its XPrize will launch a $ 100 million contest aimed at inspiring teams of innovators to develop carbon removal projects capable of being scaled “en masse to a gigaton level, blocking CO2 permanently in an environmentally friendly manner.”

Groups of scientists have meanwhile drafted projects for California’s transition to the new technologies. A thorough study by Stanford and the Energy Future Initiative identified 76 existing factories, power plants and other facilities in the state where carbon capture technology could be used to remove 59 million tons of greenhouse gas annually by 2030.

The report also noted that the state landscape has left it with adequate space to store more captured carbon dioxide than most places in the country, with space to store 70 billion tonnes of it, mostly in the Central Valley. It could go into underground basins that extend many miles through large areas of the state, the report says.

California arrives at the party late. Other states began experimenting with carbon sequestration years ago, with earliest pilot projects aimed at increasing the viability of fossil fuels – suitable facilities such as coal plants with carbon sequestration mechanisms. But California has covered itself, more focused on getting away completely from fossil fuels.

The one big carbon capture project the state tried was a failure. The effort in Kern County was aimed at reviving coal at a time when fuel has long since gone out of fashion in the state.

“Bringing coal into California and then trying to clean it up wasn’t a good start,” said Robert Weisenmiller, a former chairman of the California Energy Commission. “It just got weirder and weirder. The costs kept going up, and it went up.” The plug was pulled in 2016, before the plant went online.

Now California is taking another crack at the enigmatic removal of carbon as it consolidates its position as the country’s climate leader.

“The state’s goal is to achieve zero net carbon,” Weisenmiller said. “It’s not enough to just reduce the emissions we put into the atmosphere. At the end of the day, you have to take out a little bit.”

With the right price, there is no need for excessive removal of carbon dioxide

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